Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Litster, John
LITSTER or LE LITESTER, JOHN (d. 1381), ‘king of the commons,’ was a dyer (litster, see Stratmann, Middle Engl. Dict. s.v.) of Norwich, in all probability a native of Norfolk. Froissart describes him as of Staffordshire (ix. 406, ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove), and calls him ‘Guillaume’ Listier. Capgrave, who was born (1393) and wrote at Lynn, mentions that Litster had a house at Felmingham, near North Walsham. He may possibly be connected (Rye, Hist. of Norfolk, p. 52) with the Ralph le Litester rated on a subsidy roll for the neighbouring parish of Worstead in 1315. In the peasants' revolt of June 1381 Litster put himself at the head of the ‘rustics and ribalds’ of Norfolk, who, like those of Suffolk and other counties, rose almost simultaneously and in concert with the men of Kent and Essex. The Norfolk insurgents were chiefly villeins; they killed lawyers, and burnt manor rolls to destroy evidence of the old commuted labour services; three of their number—Seth, Trunch, and Cubit—shared the leadership with Litster (Capgrave, De Illustr. Henricis, p. 170).
Litster, though probably the son of a villein, was as an artisan in sympathy with the wild political schemes of the men of Kent. If Jack Strawe's confession may be trusted, they proposed to abolish the monarchy and set up kings chosen by the commons in every county (Walsingham, Hist. Angl. ii. 10). Litster, like Robert Westbrom in Suffolk (ib. p. 11), assumed the royal title, calling himself ‘King of the Commons’ (‘King of Norfolk’ in a chapter heading of Walsingham, u.s.) The rebels appeared in such strength before Norwich that though the citizens took special measures for its defence (Rot. Congregat. Norwici in Blomefield, Hist. of Norfolk, iii. 106–7) the gates had to be opened to them; they held the city to ransom, but nevertheless (Capgrave) destroyed the houses of nobles and lawyers.
Distrusting themselves, and perhaps fearful of being led too far by Litster and his fellow-artisans, the villeins pressed into their company (Walsingham, ii. 6, cf. Froissart, u.s.) certain knights who had to submit to the whims of the ‘king of the commons.’ He appointed them tasters of his food and drink, and one of them in especial, ‘being an honourable knight,’ his carver.
When the villeins heard that Richard had granted charters of manumission to the serfs of the home counties, and probably after news of the collapse of the main revolt had reached Norfolk, they sent three of their own number (Walsingham), Seth, Trunch, and Cubit, according to Capgrave, with two of the knights, to the king, bearing the money extorted from Norwich, in the hope of obtaining more comprehensive charters for themselves. At the same time Litster and his friends evacuated Norwich and retired northwards to North Walsham, to await their envoys' return. But the latter were intercepted at Icklingham, between Thetford and Newmarket, by a small armed band led by Henry le Despenser [q. v.], bishop of Norwich, from his manor of Burleigh, near Oakham. The bishop promptly beheaded the three villeins, and hastened, ‘armed to the teeth,’ through Wymondham and Norwich, towards the headquarters of the rebels. The terrified gentry, taking courage, issued from their hiding-places, and it was with a considerable force that the bishop drew near North Walsham. Under Litster's skilful direction the rebels had barred the Norwich road to North Walsham with a fosse and a barricade of windows, doors, and tables. But the bishop rode into their midst, and though they fought desperately, they were broken and cut down. Litster escaped, but was speedily discovered in a field of standing corn (Capgrave), brought before the bishop, and absolved, drawn, hanged, beheaded, and quartered on the spot. The bishop graciously held his head lest it should drag on the ground as he was borne disembowelled to the gallows. The four quarters were sent to Norwich, Yarmouth, Lynn, and his own house at Felmingham, ‘that all might know how rebels end.’ Froissart (ix. 421), with characteristic inaccuracy, places Litster's execution at Stafford. On the Norwich side of North Walsham there is a cross which is thought to mark the scene of the battle, and a mound believed to cover the slain.
[Chronicon Angliæ, pp. 304–8 (Rolls Ser.); the same account in Walsingham's Historia Anglicana, ii. 5–8 (Rolls Ser.); Monk of Evesham, ed. Hearne, 1729, p. 30; Knighton, col. 2639 (Scriptores Decem, ed. Twysden, 1652); Froissart, ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove, i. 378, ix. 406–9, 421–4, x. 506; Capgrave, De Illustribus Henricis, pp. 170–2 (Rolls Ser.), and Chronicle of England, p. 237 (Rolls Ser.); Holinshed's Chronicles, ed. 1587, ii. 435; Stow's Chronicle, p. 294; Wallon's Richard II, 1864, i. 88–91, 449; Pauli's Englische Geschichte, iv. 533; Blomefield and Parkin's Hist. of Norfolk, ed. 1806, iii. 106–11; Norfolk Archæol., old ser., 1847–64, v. 341–53; R. H. Mason's Hist. of Norfolk, 1884–5, pp. 83–5, 113; W. Rye's Hist. of Norfolk, 1885, pp. 52–5.]